Revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships

June 14, 2011

October 25, 1944, 0200 hours. It is the final major day of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Six America battleships slowly steam back and forth across the mouth of the Surigao Strait. Five are survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Tennessee, and Maryland. Two forces of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers are steaming north in the strait. The American battleships will “cross their T,” pouring full broadsides into each arriving Japanese ship. The Pearl Harbor battleships are about to have their revenge.

At Pearl Harbor, the “newest” battleship was the West Virginia (BB-48). Built in 1921, she had the advantages of lessons learned in World War II. In addition, she was heavily updated before World War II. After she was built, a moratorium was placed on battleship construction a result of the Washington Naval conference. The U.S. would not begin to build more battleships until the eve of World War II.

West Virginia, 1926. National Archives, Photo # NH 46415

During the attack, the West Virginia took more hits than any other ship, including the Arizona and Oklahoma. She was hit by six or seven torpedoes (there was too much damage to be certain) and two heavy high-level bombs. Although alert counter-flooding kept her from capsizing like the Oklahoma moored in front of her, she sunk 40 feet into the harbor mud, continuing to burn for another day.

West Virginia sunk in 40 feet of water. Note the two funnels. Also note the “birdcage” masts, which were characteristics of U.S. battleships built after World War I. Robert F. Walden Collection - Hawaii War Records Depository - University of Hawaii Archives

Fortunately, Pearl Harbor’s shipyard was still operational. The yard put patches over her torpedo holes and floated her to dry dock. In May, 1942, fixed up enough to sail, the West Virginia left for a major overhaul on the West Coast.

West Virginia leaving Pearl Harbor for reconstruction. Robert F. Walden Collection - Hawaii War Records Depository - University of Hawaii Archives

It was not until July 1944 that she finally rejoined the fleet, just in time for the Battle of Leyte Gulf. When the West Virginia returned, she was a much better ship. She had no visible funnels, a sleeker superstructure, and bristled with heavy antiaircraft guns. Most importantly for the coming battle, the long delay in upgrading her meant that she had the Navy’s newest Mark 8 fire control radar system plus additional radar to spot aircraft. She would be able to fire on the advancing Japanese forces long before they could see her. Her only real limitation was that she was still slow, limited to about 20 knots. She would not be able to keep up with carrier task forces, but for bombarding beach heads or sitting in ambush, this was no hindrance at all.

West Virginia after Reconstruction, 1944. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # 19-N-68376 Note the radar installations at the top.

The first Japanese force to enter the strait was Adm. Nishimura Shoji’s two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers. Even in a traditional battle, the Americans would have had a strong advantage with their six battleships and several cruisers. By this time in the war, the U.S. fleet was far larger than the Japanese fleet. Crossing the Japanese T would merely add to the slaughter.

Long before the Japanese came into range of the battleships, 39 Patrol Torpedo boats harassed them with torpedo runs. They did no damage, but they gave Adm. Jessie Oldendorf a constant picture of the Japanese advance. As Nishimura got closer to the mouth of the strait, Oldendorf unleashed 28 destroyers to attack with torpedoes. The destroyers launched up to ten torpedoes apiece into the approaching Japanese force. In contrast to the PT boat attacks, the destroyer attacks were deadly. Torpedoes from the little tin cans blew the battleship Fusō in half, sunk two destroyers, and left the destroyer Asagumo behind with damage. Almost half of Nishimura’s force was gone before he neared the mouth of the strait and the Pearl Harbor greeters waiting to welcome them.

Although the U.S. welcoming committee was extremely potent, it had one limitation. The navy had provisioned the battleships for shore bombardment to support MacArthur’s landings at Leyte. Consequently, 75 percent of their shells were high capacity shells useless against battleships. The big battle wagons would only fire a limited number of broadsides to conserve their armor piercing (AP) shells.

Finally, the surviving Japanese ships neared the mouth of the straight. The battleships held their fire, waiting for the Japanese ships to steam closer. The West Virginia recorded the fatal minutes of the bombardment in her log.

  • At 0208, the West Virginia could see shell fire from the approaching Japanese fleet.
  • At 0304, the enemy appeared on the ship’s long-range SG-1 radar systems designed to track aircraft.
  • At 0332, admiral Oldendorf cleared the battleships to fire.
  • At 0333, the West Virginia got a firing solution with her Mark 8 fire control radar at 30,000 yards. (She had actually seen the approaching fleet at 44,000 yards.) Her target throughout the bombardment would be the Japanese battleship Yamashiro.
  • Her radar could pick out individual ships of both the first Japanese force and the second force steaming far behind it. She could also see individual U.S. destroyers attacking the Japanese forces.
  • She waited until 0352, with the Japanese 22,800 yards away. The delay had been necessary to ensure that she would not be firing on U.S. ships. Finally, the “Wee Vee” fired her first eight-gun broadside of 16 inch armor piercing shells. She scored immediate hits with this first salvo of 2,400 pound shells.
  • At 0354, she saw the battleship illuminated by fire during the sixth salvo.
  • Overall, she sent 16 broadsides. The first 13 took place at an average of every 41 seconds. In all, she fired 89 AP shells and 4 high capacity shells. The HC rounds were used because of an inability to get AP shells to guns a few times.
  • During the second or third broadside, California and Tennessee, which also had the Mark 8 radar, begin to add their 14 inch guns to the carnage, firing a total of 139 shells.
  • The Maryland, with an older Mark 4 radar fire control system, fired at the water spouts kicked up by the shells of other ships. California and Mississippi decided to conserve their shells. Pennsylvania did not fire at all, and Mississippi only fired a single salvo.
  • Cruisers with 6 inch and 8 inch guns positioned to the south of the battleships added their fire.
  • At 0402, the West Virginia and other heavies ceased fire to conserve their AP shells. At this point, the West Virginia only had 110 AP shells left.
  • At 4:11, the radar blip that had been the Yamashiro bloomed and then faded.
  • At 4:12, the radar blip vanished.

The visual effect was astounding, Captain Smoot, commanding the destroyer Newcomb, said that the arcs of fire looked like the tail lights of cars crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

Their barrages quickly sunk the remaining Japanese battleship, Yamashiro, and devastated the heavy cruiser Mogami. The only Japanese ship to avoid serious damage was the destroyer Shigure, which had immediately reversed course and steamed away while the big guns focused on the battleship and cruiser. The Mogami, although massively damaged, was able to limp slowly to the south. When the second Japanese force began to approach the mouth of the strait with two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, its admiral witnessed the burning destruction in the water and immediately turned around to avoid the guns of the American fleet. The threat from Japan through the Surigao Strait was ended. The next day, aircraft sunk the Mogami, and destroyers and cruisers finished off the destroyer Asagumo. Only the Shigure survived the passage through the strait.

Although the Pearl Harbor battleships had taken their revenge, they did relatively little of the total damage. The destroyers had heavily reduced the first Japanese force before the battleships ever fired a shot. When the behemoths finally ended their barrages, they only sunk one Japanese battleship and fatally wounded one Japanese cruiser. However, the goal of the battleships had been to keep the Japanese from advancing through the strait to attack MacArthur’s landing force, and even if the destroyers had not reduce the Japanese force, the battleships would still have stopped it. The battleships had decisively done their job.

Although no one knew it at the time, this was the last time in history that battleships would face one another in combat. Even by this time, battleships were mostly used for land bombardment if they were too slow to keep up with the carrier fleet. More modern and faster battleships were mostly used to provide antiaircraft fire to protect the flat tops. Still, the massive wall of cannon shells shot at the enemy during this final battle was a dramatic way to mark the passing of the battleship as the fleet’s capital ship.

One other battleship survived the Pearl Harbor attack. During the Japanese attack, the Nevada made a run for the open sea but was ordered to beach herself when she was attacked by a hornet’s nest of dive bombers and began to sink. She was also repaired and returned to combat. However, she was sent to the Atlantic. In June 1944, her long 14 inch guns supported the Normandy invasion by savaging German troop formations as much as 17 miles behind the invasion force.

Sources

Wiley, H. V., Commanding Officer, West Virginia, Action in Battle of Surigao Straits 25 October 1944 U.S. West Virginia—Report of, 1 November 1944. Available at http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/logs/BB/bb48-Surigao.html. (Last visited February 2, 2011). Transcribed and formatted in HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation.

Cutler, Thomas J., The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23-26 October 1944, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland, 1994.

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Aircraft #13 on the Doolittle Raid

April 5, 2011

This is a firsthand account by the pilot of aircraft #13 on the Doolittle Raid off the Hornet in 1942. Take the time and enjoy a bit of history.

My name is Edgar McElroy. My friends call me “Mac”. I was born and raised in Ennis , Texas the youngest of five children, son of Harry and Jennie McElroy. Folks say that I was the quiet one. We lived at 609 North Dallas Street and attended the Presbyterian Church.

My dad had an auto mechanic’s shop downtown close to the main fire station. My family was a hard working bunch, and I was expected to work at dad’s garage after school and on Saturdays, so I grew up in an atmosphere of machinery, oil and grease. Occasionally I would hear a lone plane fly over, and would run out in the street and strain my eyes against the sun to watch it. Someday, that would be me up there!

I really like cars, and I was always busy on some project, and it wasn’t long before I decided to build my very own Model-T out of spare parts. I got an engine from over here, a frame from over there, and wheels from someplace else, using only the good parts from old cars that were otherwise shot. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was all mine I enjoyed driving on the dirt roads around town and the feeling of freedom and speed. That car of mine could really go fast, 40 miles per hour!

In high school I played football and tennis, and was good enough at football to receive an athletic scholarship from Trinity University in Waxahachie. I have to admit that sometimes I daydreamed in class, and often times I thought about flying my very own airplane and being up there in the clouds. That is when I even decided to take a correspondence course in aircraft engines. Whenever I got the chance, I would take my girl on a date up to Love Field in Dallas. We would watch the airplanes and listen to those mighty piston engines roar. I just loved it and if she didn’t, well that was just too bad.

After my schooling, I operated a filling station with my brother, then drove a bus, and later had a job as a machinist in Longview , but I never lost my love of airplanes and my dream of flying. With what was going on in Europe and in Asia , I figured that our country would be drawn into war someday, so I decided to join the Army Air Corps in November of 1940. This way I could finally follow my dream.

I reported for primary training in California. The training was rigorous and frustrating at times. We trained at airfields all over California . It was tough going, and many of the guys washed out. When I finally saw that I was going to make it, I wrote to my girl back in Longview, Texas. Her name is Agnes Gill. I asked her to come out to California for my graduation. and oh yeah, also to marry me.

I graduated on July 11, 1941. I was now a real, honest-to-goodness Army Air Corps pilot. Two days later, I married “Aggie” in Reno, Nevada. We were starting a new life together and were very happy. I received my orders to report to Pendleton, Oregon and join the 17th Bomb Group. Neither of us had traveled much before, and the drive north through the Cascade Range of the Sierra Nevada ‘s was interesting and beautiful.

It was an exciting time for us. My unit was the first to receive the new B-25 medium bomber. When I saw it for the first time I was in awe. It looked so huge. It was so sleek and powerful. The guys started calling it the “rocket plane”, and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I told Aggie that it was really something! Reminded me of a big old scorpion, just ready to sting! Man, I could barely wait!

We were transferred to another airfield in Washington State, where we spent a lot a time flying practice missions and attacking imaginary targets. Then, there were other assignments in Mississippi and Georgia, for more maneuvers and more practice. We were on our way back to California on December 7th when we got word of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We listened with mixed emotions to the announcements on the radio, and the next day to the declaration of war. What the President said, it just rang over and over in my head, “. With confidence in our armed forces, with the un-bounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.” By gosh, I felt as though he was talking straight to me! I didn’t know what would happen to us, but we all knew that we would be going somewhere now.

The first weeks of the war, we were back in Oregon flying patrols at sea looking for possible Japanese submarines. We had to be up at 0330 hours to warm up the engines of our planes. There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, and it was so cold that our engine oil congealed overnight. We placed big tarps over the engines that reached down to the ground. Inside this tent we used plumbers blow torches to thaw out the engines. I figured that my dad would be proud of me, if he could see me inside this tent with all this machinery, oil and grease. After about an hour of this, the engines were warm enough to start.

We flew patrols over the coasts of Oregon and Washington from dawn until dusk. Once I thought I spotted a sub, and started my bomb run, even had my bomb doors open, but I pulled out of it when I realized that it was just a big whale.

Lucky for me, I would have never heard the end of that! Actually it was lucky for us that the Japanese didn’t attack the west coast, because we just didn’t have a strong enough force to beat them off. Our country was in a real fix now, and overall things looked pretty bleak to most folks. In early February, we were ordered to report to Columbus, South Carolina. Man, this Air Corps sure moves a fellow around a lot! Little did I know what was coming next!

After we got settled in Columbus, my squadron commander called us all together. He told us that an awfully hazardous mission was being planned, and then he asked for volunteers. There were some of the guys that did not step forward, but I was one of the ones that did. My co-pilot was shocked. He said “You can’t volunteer, Mac! You’re married, and you and Aggie are expecting a baby soon. Don’t do it!” I told him that “I got into the Air Force to do what I can, and Aggie understands how I feel. The war won’t be easy for any of us.”

We that volunteered were transferred to Eglin Field near Valparaiso, Florida in late February. When we all got together, there were about 140 of us volunteers, and we were told that we were now part of the “Special B-25 Project.”

Read the rest of this entry »


Where Would the Enterprise Have Moored?

November 2, 2010
The Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers were fortunately out of port on December 7, 1941. The Saratoga was en route from Bremerton, Washington to San Diego, where she would embark her air wing. The Enterprise and the Lexington were on missions to deliver aircraft to Wake and Midway, respectively. The Lexington had just left on November 5th. The Enterprise had left on November 28 and been scheduled to return on the 6th, but heavy seas delayed her arrival until late in the day on December 7.If the carriers had been in port during the attack, where would they have berthed? Although ships did not always berth at the same location, Commander Lawrence R. Schmeider reported that the biggest ships had “normal” mooring points. For all three carriers, we know these normal mooring points from photographs, and for the Enterprise, we have additional information directly from Schmeider and at least one other source. 

As Figure 1 and Figure 2 show, the Lexington and Saratoga typically moored to the northwest of Ford Island. So did the Utah when she was in port.

Figure 1: The Lexington at Pearl Harbor1941 (National Archives 80-G-379385)

Figure 2: The Saratoga at Pearl Harbor, October 22, 1941 (National Archives 80-G-279370)

The fact that carriers often berthed on the northwest side of Ford Island does not come as a surprise to most docents at Pacific Aviation Museum. We often say that “carrier row” was opposite from battleship row relative to Ford Island. However, Figure 3 shows a photo of the Enterprise at her berthing point. Notice that this is on the southeast side of the Ford Island, between the California’s normal berth and the berths of the other battleships on battleship row.

Figure 3: The Enterprise at Pearl Harbor

This may come as a surprise to many docents. However, in addition to the photographic evidence, we have the statement of Commander Lawrence R. Schmeider, whose detailed report on the normal berthing points of a number of ships at Pearl Harbor included information about the Enterprise. He specifically said that the Enterprise usually moored behind the California. Supporting this, the book Battleship Sailorhas a photograph of the Enterprise moored just behind the California’ stern.

If the Enterprise had been moored between the California and the other battleships during the attack, she would have been impossible to miss. To get long enough low-altitude runs to their targets, the 24 Kate torpedo bombers that approached battleship row had to fly through the narrow Southeast Loch. To hit most battleships, the Kates had to veer to the right when exiting the loch. To hit the California, they had to veer left. However, Figure 4 shows that the Southeast Loch pointed like an arrow almost directly at the normal berthing point of Enterprise.

Figure 4: Southeast Loch and Ford Island (National Archives 80-G-192874)

Sources

Information about the location of carriers is from Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941 Carrier Locations, Naval History and Heritage Command. http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq66-9.htm. Last visited October 29, 2010.

Schmeider, Commander Lawrence R., “The Last Months of Peace at Pearl Harbor,” pp. 51-56 in Paul Stillwell, ed., Air Raid: Pearl Harbor! Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, USA.

All photographs are from the National Archives. They were taken by military personnel and are in the public domain.


New Arrival F-102A Delta Dagger

October 16, 2009

During the dangerous period between the late 1950s and 1960s, the F-102A Delta Dagger was the heart of America’s Air Defense Command. If war had broken out, the U.S. SAGE network would have directed flights of Mach 1.25 F-102As to attacking Soviet bombers. Near the bombers, the “Deuces” would have taken over using their powerful on-board radars and computerized weapons control systems. They would have fired volleys of heat-seeking missiles, radar-guided missiles, unguided Mighty Mouse rockets, and even nuclear-tipped missiles.

seeing+the+unseen+jet
This radical interceptor was the first production aircraft with a delta wing. During its development, it pioneered aerodynamics in the transonic flight realm from Mach .8 to Mach 1.2. It was the first plane designed (actually redesigned) according to the area rule, giving it a distinctive wasp waist when viewed from above. The Deuce was America’s first supersonic interceptor.
The Deuce had a long service life. First fielded in 1956, it remained in service until 1977. Although faster interceptors appeared in the 1960s, they were produced in smaller numbers than the Delta Dagger. Consequently, the F-102A remained an important part of the U.S. Air Defense System for many years longer than first planned.

f102-delta-dagger
Our particular F-102A flew with the Hawaii Air National Guard. In the early 1950s, a number of Air National Guard units began participating in air defense exercises under the control of regular Air Force units. In 1956, HIANG was the first Air National Guard unit to be given full responsibility for protecting a portion of America’s skies, independent of Air Force units. Only several years later were other Air National Guard units given such responsibility. During its long service, HIANG flew a stream of ever-better interceptors, including the F-86D Saber, the F-102A, the F-4F, and the F-15. It is scheduled to transition to F-22 raptors in 2010—before many regular Air Force units


Biggest Little Airshow Gets Bigger!

July 14, 2009

Honolulu, HI–Visitors to Ford Island will be greeted by the F-14 Tomcat on the tarmac and the AT-6 Advanced Trainer plane in front of the red and white control tower as Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor presents the 2nd “Biggest Little Airshow on Ford Island,” Saturday, August 8 and Sunday, August 9, 10am to 4pm.

The Birds of Paradise will pilot their massive remote controlled 1 to 5 scale planes for dog fights, candy “bombing,” aerial stunts, and more. The Airshow is free with paid Museum admission. Due to the popularity of the initial event in March, the August show has been expanded, adding many more planes, lots of dogfights, and two big days of fun, food, prize drawings and festivities.

At the event some lucky visitors will win a chance to pilot a remote control aircraft. There will be tours of the Restoration Hangar that still bears the bullet holes of the December 7, 1941 attack. Inside, they’ll see helicopters, fighter planes, and a 1941 machine shop busy restoring the Museum’s aircraft. Visitors can also explore the Museum Gallery in Hangar 37, fly Combat Flight Simulators, and enter to win prizes such as airline tickets on go! Hawaii’s low fare airline, helicopter rides, a Limited Edition signed F-4 Phantom II model plane, Museum tickets, and Airshow logo wear. The event is sponsored in part by Clear Channel Radio.

The Flight line opens at 10am with a traditional military color guard and all aircraft on display. The aerial demonstrations are 11am to 4pm.

Visitors can see 1/5-scale motorized-flyable models of military aircraft dating from WWII to the present, and period military vehicles courtesy of the Hawaii Historic Arms Association and the Hawaii Military Vehicle Preservation Association. Expected to be a big draw on the tarmac will be the Museum’s F-14 Tomcat, a supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat fighter aircraft that has a unique variable geometry wing. Made famous by the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, it was designed for air combat in Vietnam against the Russian MiG aircraft.

At the Museum, the fighter is awaiting restoration in Hangar 79, the next battlefield hangar to undergo restoration as the Museum engages in Phase II of its conservation of the standing buildings from the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.